December 29, 2022
JAKARTA – The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR has commended Indonesia for rescuing hundreds of Rohingya refugees who were stranded at sea for weeks and called on other nations in the region to do their part to address the fresh boat crisis.
“Indonesia has helped to save [more than 400] people in the past six weeks from four boats, showing its commitment and respect of basic humanitarian principles for people who face persecution and conflict. UNHCR urges other States to follow this example”, said the UN refugee agency in a written statement published on Tuesday.
The UN plea came as local communities and international NGOs in Aceh were providing emergency assistance to over 200 Rohingya people who arrived in the province on Sunday and Monday. Among them are believed to have been a boatload of an estimated 180 people who had languished at sea for weeks and who were feared lost.
Indonesia already hosted 229 Rohingya refugees who washed ashore on the coast of North Aceh in November and who are currently living at an unused immigration office building in Lhokseumawe. The latest wave of refugees, who arrived on two boats of 58 and 174 people, respectively, brings the total number of refugees in Aceh to 451 people.
“We welcome this act of humanity by local communities and authorities in Indonesia,” said Ann Maymann, UNHCR representative in Indonesia. “These actions help to save human lives from certain death, ending torturous ordeals for many desperate people.”
ASEAN response needed
The government needs to work with its partners in the region to tackle the protracted refugee crisis, according to Amnesty International Indonesia (AII).
“In the absence of an immediate, resourceful, and coordinated response by regional governments to help Rohingya refugees still aboard imperilled vessels, lives may be lost. This is unacceptable,” AII executive director Usman Hamid said, adding that the refugees were facing a dire situation in junta-ruled Myanmar, their home country.
ASEAN, which has been trying to cope with the Myanmar question since the latest military coup in the country last year, has yet to produce a clear response to the Rohingya boat people crisis. While Indonesia has been more receptive to the refugees, Malaysia has chosen to take a harsher stance on preventing their arrival on its shores.
Malaysian former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin said in 2020 that his country could no longer afford to take in any more Rohingya refugees. According to the UNHCR, as of October 2022, there were 182,780 refugees and asylum seekers registered under the UN agency in the neighboring country.
Kuala Lumpur has yet to change its harsh policy on the Rohingya. Thai authorities were quoted as saying by Reuters the six refugees they found clinging to a water tank floating in the Andaman Sea reported their boat was denied access to Malaysia and turned back toward Bangladesh.
The UNHCR’s Maymann described Indonesia as “one of the few states in the region to respect basic humanitarian principles for people who cannot return home due to persecution and conflict”, as reported by AFP.
Maritime and Security Agency (Bakamla) spokesman Capt. Yuhanes Antara believes the most recent boat was originally on course for Malaysia. “But the boat had an engine malfunction and was adrift at sea for a month. To make matters worse, according to the survivors, they ran out of food during the voyage,” he said in a statement.
In response, Bakamla together with local authorities and communities provided immediate assistance to the impoverished refugees. Most of the refugees are currently being sheltered at the Aceh Social Affairs Agency’s office, while the sick ones are being treated at the nearby Mesjid Raya community health center (Puskesmas).
The UNHCR, together with fellow UN agency International Organization for Migration (IOM) has also provided onsite assistance, with the NGOs praising local communities for their humanitarian acts, especially for the women and children who make up the majority of the refugees. “We are pleased to be supporting the government and the local community in Indonesia to reach out, in a humanitarian spirit, to assist those in need of protection,” Louis Hoffmann, the IOM’s chief of mission in Indonesia, said in a statement.
While local authorities are more than willing to provide basic necessities such as food, medicine and temporary shelter, Aceh Legislative Council (DPRA) member Iskandar Usman Al Farlaky urged the central government to investigate whether these refugees were seeking asylum in Indonesia, or merely in transit to other countries.
“Is there any indication of human trafficking? Do they have agents in Indonesia that will ferry them to Malaysia and look for work over there? [The government] has to investigate the matter. In a single incident in 2021, 281 stranded Rohingyas reportedly escaped from their temporary shelter in Lhokseumawe and made a break for Malaysia.
An AFP report published in late 2020 uncovered a smuggling network connecting camps in Bangladesh, where most Rohingya refugees are currently settled, to their destination in Malaysia with Indonesia sometimes being used as a transit point. (ahw)